Elevate Difference

A Chanukah Noel: A True Story

A Chanukah Noel is a welcome addition to the limited but much-needed canon of interfaith children’s books, and it has the particular additional benefit of being entirely secular. This combination of qualities already sets it apart from most Christmas picture books. The story is about a young Jewish girl named Charlotte who moves to rural France and struggles to fit in. She is held back several grades until she learns French, she’s called ‘the foreigner’ by a classmate, she’s afraid she’ll be left out of the Christmas grab bag gift swap, and her parents tell her she has to study French while everyone else is enjoying their Christmas vacation. She finds Chanukah a poor substitute for what she sees going on around her–decorations, lights, a traditional travelling Christmas market, shops full of gifts and rich foods. It’s not entirely altruism-driven when she hits upon a great way to support a poorer classmate who celebrates, but can’t afford all the trappings. She convinces her parents to let her experience Christmas by proxy: they do all the usual holiday preparations and then donate the food, gifts and decorations to her classmate’s family.

The protagonist is flawed, but in touch with her emotions. Parents of children in Charlotte’s position will find this story valuable for modelling emotional literacy. Envy is named and owned, distinctions are made between religious and national customs, and the word miracle, which is nearly always used in religious Christmas and Chanukah stories, is applied very specifically to human generosity in this one.

It’s a very matter-of-fact take on a real experience of a child whose family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and it acknowledges the benefits of sharing cultural traditions. The portrayal of class is glossed over more than some may like–a very brief conversation, where Charlotte insists that the family who receives the Christmas goose and decorations would be doing her a favour–sums up the exchange in a way that makes sense from the point of view of the young main character, and may oversimplify the complex hierarchy of charitable giving, but an event at the end of the story equalizes the exchange. This is a true story, and I appreciated it in the sense that it was a snippet of a real event retold to the author and illustrator. From that perspective, it stands alone well. However, after the story ended, I wanted to know more: why did they have to move to France? Was it during the war? A little more recently? Did it take Charlotte a long time to learn French? Unfortunately, these questions aren’t answered, but the rich honesty of the story–despite its deceptively simple narrative–makes me want to hear from this author and illustrator again.

Speaking of the illustrations, the expressiveness in each picture combined with the slightly muted color palate gives the impression of old film footage. The Christmas market actually looked just like the local ones that visit Yorkshire every year, to my surprise and delight. People, landscapes and kitchen utensils are afforded the same attention to detail and fit well with the story.

Half my family is Jewish and the other half is Catholic, and we do a bit of both holidays every December. I missed out on secular interfaith holiday books as a kid, and really appreciated this story personally. More, please.

Written by: Chella Quint, December 21st 2010

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